A massive federal indictment names the senior leadership of America's most frightening prison gang. But will it work?
SANTA ANA, Calif. -- Within the Ronald Reagan Federal Building and United States Courthouse here is a courtroom called the "Nuremberg room" for its resemblance to the famous chamber in which 22 leaders of the Third Reich were tried in 1945 and 1946 for crimes against humanity.
Both halls of justice have three-tiered docks where multiple high-profile defendants are shackled to anchors in the floor by chains hidden from view behind tables and podiums. Like the docks in Germany's Palace of Justice 60 years ago, the docks in Santa Ana this year have filled with self-avowed Nazis, Aryan warriors, and followers of Hitler.
But the Nazis standing accused in California are Nazis of a wholly different strain than Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal defendants like Hermann Goering and Rudolf Hess. They are white supremacist pimps, drug dealers and backstabbing shower-stall killers, glorified thugs with swastika tattoos. They covet power and oversee a criminal empire, but they are motivated less by furthering their die-hard racist ideology than satisfying their crude greed. They are the leaders of the Aryan Brotherhood (AB), the most notorious, powerful, and violent prison gang in America. Also known as the Brand or the Rock — a reference to the Shamrock tattoos AB members favor in addition to Nazi insignia — the gang in recent years has established criminal networks outside prison walls in cities, small towns, and suburbs across the country.
Their nicknames are worthy of professional wrestlers — Super Honky, The Baron, Lucifer — but the blood they have spilt by the bucketful has been all too real. Aryan Brotherhood members make up less than one-tenth of one percent of the nation's prison inmate population, yet the white power gang is responsible for 18% of all prison murders, according to the FBI.
The AB's carnage has spanned four decades. In 1981, two members of the Brotherhood who were incarcerated at the federal prison in Marion, Ill., murdered the leader of a rival gang, the D.C. Blacks, by sneaking up behind him in the shower and then brutally stabbing and slashing him 67 times. They then dragged his bloody, mutilated corpse through a cellblock while white inmates cheered and chanted racial slurs.
"I have walked over dead bodies," one of the AB assassins in that case later boasted in court. "I've had guts splattered all over my chest from the race wars."
The Last Arrow
Law enforcement authorities and prison officials have until now been unable to destroy the Aryan Brotherhood mainly because so many top leaders of the gang are serving life or multiple life sentences with no possibility of parole. These men laugh at criminal penalties that only add more time to their already infinite sentences.
Isolating the gang's leaders in solitary confinement hasn't worked either, because they always find way to communicate with each other and to transmit and receive reports, requests, and orders from prison to prison and down through the ranks, whether by bribing guards, subpoenaing each other to appear at court hearings where they employ hand signals and speak in code, or writing letters in a form of invisible ink made with their own urine.
These methods are time consuming. But time is one luxury the leaders of the Aryan Brotherhood possess in abundance. One sure way to stop them is to kill them, which is exactly what the federal government is threatening to do in a sweeping racketeering indictment that has drawn a rogue's gallery of 40 Aryan Brotherhood members and associates, including virtually all of the gang's veteran leaders, or "shot callers," to the Nuremberg room in Santa Ana.
Twenty-one of the defendants are eligible for the death penalty, making the Aryan Brotherhood indictment the largest death penalty case in the history of the American justice system. It is a decapitation attack.
"Capital punishment is the one arrow left in our quiver," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Jessner, who is spearheading the Aryan Brotherhood prosecution. "I think even a lot of people who are against the death penalty in general would recognize that in this particular instance, where people are committing murder repeatedly from behind bars, there is little other option."
The indictment alleges that over the past quarter century, Aryan Brotherhood members either personally committed or solicited 32 murders and attempted murders in order both to promote the gang's stature in prison and to maintain the AB's iron-fisted control of narcotics trafficking, male prostitution, gambling, and extortion among white inmates.
In one example, the indictment alleges that in 1997, AB leaders responding to an outbreak of racial violence inside the federal penitentiary in Marion issued a "formal declaration of war" on black inmates throughout the federal prison system by using coded phone calls and messages written in a secret double alphabet invented by Sir Francis Bacon in 1623. When they received their orders, AB operatives in the federal pen in Lewisburg, Penn., executed a carefully coordinated, simultaneous attack on black inmates, killing two and severely wounding four.
"My brothers and I have went to war, (make no mistake it is war) with all of the mongoloid races at one time or another, using knives, pipes, locks/rocks in socks," a member of the Aryan Brotherhood in Oklahoma who identified himself as "tree 1488" posted to a forum on prison gangs on the white supremacist Stormfront Web site in June. (The numbers 14 and 88 are both common white supremacist identifiers.) "At the end of some of these confrontations somebody is needed to be medi-flighted out, nearly always someone has had to go to medical. I carry my scars/badges of battle. Death is a very real possibility."
The racketeering indictment further alleges that Aryan Brotherhood leaders in prison have contracted killings and other violence by operatives in the free world to collect debts, silence witnesses, and crush competition. Wives and girlfriends of incarcerated AB commonly help smuggle drugs into prison and deliver messages back to AB members and minions in the free world. Four women are named in the current federal racketeering indictment for acting as couriers of information, drugs, and money.
While the precise number of Aryan Brotherhood members and associates is not known, the gang has chapters in virtually every major state and federal prison in the country. Estimates of AB's total strength vary widely, but nearly all exceed 15,000 members and associates nationwide, with roughly half in prison and half out.
"You gain ranks by battles, by 'missions,' not all of it locked up," explained tree 1488. "Brothers grow as close as vets do when they go into battle fighting for a common cause. We are there for each other even on the outside. I have a high ranking it has taken me nearly seven years of missions to earn."
The Oklahoma Aryan Brotherhood member went on the explain to the white nationalists on Stormfront that when he was first released from prison, "my neighbors on the outside were taken aback by my tattoos at first — sleeved out arms with shoulder caps that read 'Aryan Honor,'" but that he gradually won them over with his gardening and baking acumen. "I give them fresh vegetables when they are in season, cakes and so forth. I clue them in to white nationalism if they show an interest. Aryan Honor is the credo I live by."
Through the Past, Darkly
Most prisons were racially segregated until the 1960s. When they were desegregated, racial violence flared and inmates formed gangs along color lines. In 1964, white inmates at San Quentin Maximum Security Prison in San Quentin, Calif., founded the Aryan Brotherhood. From the beginning, the gang was steeped in racial hatred and neo-Nazism. The founders adopted swastikas and Nazi SS lightning bolts as the Aryan Brotherhood's identifying symbols and tattoos. Recruits were ordered to read Mein Kampf and to "earn their badge" of membership by attacking — and often killing — black inmates.
In 1973, no less a reputed mad-dog killer than Charles Manson was rejected by the Aryan Brotherhood when he asked to join but then refused to murder for skin color alone. "The AB want Manson to kill a black because black is black," Manson's lieutenant Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme wrote in a letter. "He will not do this and they are against him."
Throughout the 1970s, as the gang expanded, the AB constantly battled with black and Hispanic prison gangs in slow-burning wars of attrition fueled by racial hatred but truly fought over territory and profits. Then as now, the Aryan Brotherhood was both a white supremacist organization and a criminal syndicate.
"There's no doubt the Aryan Brotherhood are a bunch of racists, but when it comes to doing business, the color that matters most to them isn't black or brown or white — it's green," said prison gang expert Tony Delgado, Security Threat Group Coordinator for the Ohio Bureau of Rehabilitation and Correction.
Whereas the Order — a high-profile gang of hardened white power criminals who in the early 1980s robbed armored cars, counterfeited currency and machine-gunned to death a Jewish radio host — killed and robbed mainly to further the cause of white supremacy, the Aryan Brotherhood reverses that formula. The AB uses the white supremacy movement to further its criminal endeavors.
"The white power thing is mostly just a good recruiting tool and a way to maintain structure and discipline," said Delgado. "These guys are more about making money than starting any kind of white revolution. They sell heroin to white people all the time. That's not very Aryan or brotherly of them."
Joining the Movement
In 1980, the Aryan Brotherhood split into two separate but cooperative factions, one for gang members in federal custody and the other for gang members in state prisons, who had by then proliferated to Colorado, Arizona, Missouri and New Mexico. The federal faction of the gang formed a three-man "commission" to supervise and direct all Aryan Brotherhood actions inside federal prison. In 1982, the state prison AB faction followed suit.
Initiates to both factions swore lifelong allegiance to the gang with the same blood oath: "An Aryan brother is without a care/He walks where the weak and heartless won't dare/For an Aryan brother, death holds no fear/Vengeance will be his, through his brothers still here."
Also in the 1980s, the imprisoned leaders of the Aryan Brotherhood began to cultivate relationships with the leaders of neo-Nazi and white supremacist organizations outside prison, most notably Aryan Nations. AB members in Missouri unsuccessfully challenged that state's ban on inmates receiving Aryan Nations literature, and AB members all over the country joined Aryan Nations under its alter-ego name, Church of Jesus Christ Christian. This "church" is a purveyor of the "Christian Identity" religion preached by late Aryan Nations founder and head pastor Richard Butler, whose "prison ministry" for decades promoted the doctrine that non-whites are "mud people" and Jews are the literal descendants of Satan.
Very few Aryan Brotherhood members are sent to prison originally for hate crimes. Typically they're sent up on robbery or drug charges and then join the gang for protection. But once they're members of the AB, white prisoners are indoctrinated into the virulent ideology of race war.
"We do what we have to do to make it in prison. If any of you ever have to go there you will fully understand. Until then you won't," a member of the Aryan Brotherhood posted in June to a Stormfront forum on which white supremacists were debating whether the Aryan Brotherhood should be embraced or shunned by white power activists.
"My name is Michael but all my brothers call me 'tattoo.' I am an overseer for the Alabama Aryan Brotherhood. I am currently incarcerated in Bibb County Correctional Facility in Brent, Alabama. I want to set the record straight on a few things I've head on this forum. The Aryan Brotherhood, my family, will always be a big part of the White Nationalist movement! We are under a blood and honor oath to live by the 14 words 'We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.' Any true soldier not only lives by these words but they would be embedded in his heart and soul. Rahowa! [Racial Holy War]"
Once they're released, some Aryan Brotherhood members commit terrible hate crimes in the name of Rahowa. The most infamous racially motivated murder since the civil rights era occurred in 1998, when three white men, two of them ex-cons, tied a black man, James Byrd Jr., to the back of their pickup truck with a logging chain, dragged him to death over three miles of country roads outside Jasper, Texas, and then deposited his shredded remains in front of a predominantly black cemetery. One of the ex-cons testified at his trial that he and one his accomplices had both joined the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas for protection from black inmates while they were incarcerated. When he rejoined society, his arms were covered with Aryan Brotherhood tattoos, including one depicting a black man being lynched. "You look at his arms," the trial prosecutor said, "and you see what's in his heart."
In October 2001, another member of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas who was enraged by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks gunned down a Bangladeshi gas station attendant simply because the victim "looked Arab."
The AB has reportedly toyed with terrorist plots of its own. In 2000, a longtime Brotherhood member and explosives expert-turned-government informant told federal investigators he had been approached by AB leaders inside Colorado's Supermax federal prison who asked him to provide them with technical information on making bombs in preparation for a series of attacks on federal buildings and officials across the country.
"It's become irrational," he said, according to an FBI report. "They're talking about making car bombs, trucks bombs, mail bombs."
In Ohio, Another Case
Just before dawn this June 23, a strike force of more than 125 federal and local law enforcement officers, including six swat teams, mustered at a mobile command center in Painesville, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. After a briefing, the force divided into no-knock search teams that surrounded and then raided six houses spread across four counties in northeastern Ohio. According to indictments released later, the houses contained stashes of illegal weapons and drugs belonging to the Order of the Blood, a criminal network financed and managed by the Aryan Brotherhood and the Pagans, an outlaw motorcycle gang.
The pre-dawn raids resulted in the seizure of 60 weapons, including 13 fully automatic machine guns, plus large amounts of methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, and the prescription painkiller Oxycodone. Thirty-four members and associates of the Aryan Brotherhood were arrested, and warrants were issued for 10 still at large. The sweep came after a 20-month undercover investigation that shifted into high gear earlier in June, when police in Willowick, Ohio, arrested two members of the Aryan Brotherhood for possessing illegal machine guns and found in their vehicle a file containing detailed personal information about two police officers in nearby Eastlake whose lives had been threatened two years ago by members of the Pagans.
"This case has all the elements of organized crime and has tentacles spread over a wide area," said Lake County Sheriff Daniel Dunlap. "These were not informal gang bangers flashing gang signs. These were hardened criminals operating in our midst."
Polishing the Rock
There are roughly 550 members of the Aryan Brotherhood in prison in Ohio, said Tony Delgado, the Ohio prison gang expert, and another 500 members on the streets who, like AB members everywhere, are bound by the gang's blood-and-honor code to follow the orders of their incarcerated leaders. According to a recently declassified FBI report on the Aryan Brotherhood, "The rule of thumb is that once on the streets, one must take care of his brothers that are still inside. The penalty for not doing so is death." This practice is known within the gang as "polishing the rock."
The rock is getting polished all over the country, even in Fairbanks, Alaska, a city of 30,000 deep in the interior of the Last Frontier. Sgt. William Hathaway, a security officer at the Fairbanks Correctional Center, said that an Aryan Brotherhood associate, or "Peckerwood," from the gang's Arkansas faction arrived in Fairbanks last year and began actively recruiting other Peckerwoods among the city's methamphetamine users and dealers to help set up an AB-financed drug ring. (Inside and outside prison, Peckerwoods are Aryan Brotherhood wannabes who do the gang's bidding in exchange for some degree of prestige, profit, and protection; occasionally a Peckerwood will become a full-fledged member, usually after carrying out a "hit" on an AB enemy.)
"He professes the Peckerwoods to be a 'white power gang,' and he is fairly successful in his efforts," said Sgt. Hathaway. "I have noticed several t-shirts lately with a woodpecker riding a motorcycle and the wording, 'Peckerwoods, this wood don't burn,' in our community this summer where none were noticed before."
Sgt. Hathaway said the Arkansas Peckerwood was imprisoned in Fairbanks after being convicted on a drug charge and is currently awaiting trial for plotting an escape in which he and 11 accomplices planned to murder correctional officers and Fairbanks patrolmen.
"He is continuing his recruiting within our facility," said Sgt. Hathway. "He corresponds with the local leader of the Aryan Brotherhood and counts several of the incarcerated Hell's Angels as his friends. He seems to be getting a large following within our prison."
There is no way to precisely estimate the number of Aryan Brotherhood members and associates in the United States. But there is little question about how far and wide the AB's lightning bolts strike. When the U.S. attorney's office in Santa Ana released the multiple death-penalty indictment, 30 of the 40 accused were already in prison, but the remaining 10 were arrested in simultaneous raids in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington.
And in January, in a dragnet similar to the Ohio bust, more than 70 federal, state and local officers swarmed three suspected AB haunts, including a motorcycle shop in Ruidoso Downs, N.M., a small town in the Rocky Mountains where newly released members of the Texas Aryan Brotherhood were allegedly setting up a burglary and methamphetamine-dealing ring. The month before in the nearby town of Cloudcroft, N.M., a local deputy was killed (see End of Watch) in a shootout with AB member Earl Flippen, whose arms were adorned with tattoos of Iron Eagles, dragons, skulls, and the motto 'White Pride." Flippen was wounded in the initial exchange of gunfire, then finished off with a single shot to the heart by the slain deputy's partner, a 33-year law enforcement veteran who subsequently pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. Flippen had been out of prison less than six months.
By early September federal prosecutors had obtained guilty pleas from all 19 of the AB racketeering defendants who are not eligible for the death penalty. The remaining 21 defendants are scheduled to stand trial later this year. The final and lasting effect of the federal government's decapitation strike against the Aryan Brotherhood is unknown for now. But even if it deals a lethal blow to the gang's leadership, with thousands of rank-and-file members due for release from prison in the next decade, the death throes of the Aryan Brotherhood might be long and nasty.
"Someday most of us are finally going to get out of this hell," the AB hit man who murdered the leader of the D.C. Blacks in 1981 recently declared from solitary confinement. "And even a rational dog after getting kicked around year after year after year attacks when his cage door is finally opened."